A Very Fine Needle
A Very Fine Needle is a recording of an electromyography (EMG) 1[1. “Electromyography (EMG) is a technique for evaluating and recording the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles. EMG is performed using an instrument called an electromyograph, to produce a record called an electromyogram. An electromyograph detects the electrical potential generated by muscle cells when these cells are electrically or neurologically activated. The signals can be analyzed to detect medical abnormalities, activation level, recruitment order or to analyze the biomechanics of human or animal movement” (Wikipedia).] test I underwent for Ocular Myasthenia. The test involves a very thin needle being inserted into a muscle to measure its electrical activity. The electrical activity picked up by the electrodes is then displayed on an oscilloscope and an audio-amplifier is used so the activity can be heard, and evaluated, by the consultant. As an artist who works a lot with sound I found it completely fascinating, lying there and hearing my bodies muscle activity amplified by this process.
In enquiring about the method deployed I found out that the needle used here is a recording device. The needle has a silver wire (the active electrode) inside a shaft of metal (which is used as the reference electrode). By placing a ground electrode on the patient, the physician can obtain a very precise measurement, since the active electrode and the reference electrode are very close to each other.
I see these needles as somewhat similar to my use of contact mics, in that they are picking up vibrations. A contact microphone is a form of microphone designed to sense audio vibrations through solid objects. Unlike normal air microphones, contact mics act as transducers that pick up vibrations and convert them into a voltage that can then be made audible. I have used recordings made with these contact mics in my soundscape pieces, for example at the end of my composition Fleet Lagoon, you can hear a recording of a contact mic on a fisherman’s hut. Another example of one of my un-manipulated contact mic recordings is of a jetty at Portland Castle, this was featured on “Hidden Sounds II”, the 52nd edition of the Gene Pool Radio Show, presented Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on Soundart Radio 102.5 FM (South Hill Park, UK). I have also used recordings of fences and signs as a basis of my treated electronic compositions. Examples of these can be heard on No Public Access, based on a contact mic attached to a sign, and slugs munching at night. 2[2. Fleet Lagoon and other albums are available on bandcamp. The podcast of the Gene Pool broadcast is available on the Digital Media Centre’s website. Many of the author’s field recordings and compositions, including No Public Access and slugs munching at night are available on his Soundcloud site.]
My interest and use of contact mics in my practice has developed from my exploration into acoustic ecology, “the study of sounds in relationship to life and society” (Schafer 1994, 205) and subsequent love of field recordings. I have discovered the beauty of listening attentively to my surroundings, passively accepting all sounds that surround me as equal: the subtle sounds, the loud intrusive sounds; sounds made by us, humans, contrasted with those of animal life; the sounds that the wind makes as it hits various objects in its path. It is to be attentive to the greater context, of how all these sounds live together: “… the study of the relationship between individuals and communities and their environment” (Ibid.).
Of course, there is much more to sound than this:
What goes unnoticed in the general run of life still exists, in its colouration, its echoes, its affects, its atmospheres and definition of place. An unnatural silence, a bell in the night, the dizzying flight of swallows, a sharp cry across the river whose audible flowing is a constant and so would be missed if it ever froze or dried up, the murmur of a quiet pub, wind ripping through grass and at the edge of hearing the scoot of a dry leaf caught in the breeze, the bringing of the milk and the emptying of the bins, a particular street in the hush of early morning, and maybe the name of that street, rolling around in the imagination with the patina of its age and the mystery of its sound (Toop 2007, 112).
Along with perusing my personal vision I like to collaborate and work with a wide range of communities with an objective of fostering awareness and understanding locality. I’ve always been interested in the unseen, addressing a private moment and trying to express it in a way that is moving and non-judgmental. Whether it is exploring personal memories or looking at how we relate to our surroundings, or simply looking more closely at the objects and spaces around us. For me, one of the more fundamental changes in modern society concerns the dynamics of communication, and is a consequence of the growing social fragmentation coupled with a deepening sense of communal interdependence. The diversification of society is making active listening an ever more essential basic skill, a skill that is likewise indispensable within the compass of the “same culture”.
In 2003, Marianella Sclavi wrote her “Seven Rules of the Art of Listening” 3[3. Quoted in Marianella Sclavi, “Why Humour Matters in Active Listening? An Intercultural approach to conflict transformation,” Politecnico of Milano, 2005.]:
- Never be in a hurry to reach conclusions. Conclusions are the most ephemeral part of your research.
- What you are seeing depends on your point of view. In order to see your point of view, you have to change it.
- In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that he/she is right and ask him/her to help you to understand why it is.
- The emotions are basic tools of knowledge if you understand that they speak a language of analogies and relationships. They don’t tell you what you are looking at, but how you are looking at it.
- A good listener is an explorer of possible worlds. The signals which he or she finds most important are the ones that seem both negligible and annoying, both marginal and irritating, since they refuse to mesh with previous convictions and certainties.
- A good listener is happy to accept the self-contradictions that come to the fore in personal thoughts and interpersonal communications. Misunderstandings are accepted as occasions for entering the most exciting field of all: the creative management of conflicts.
- To become an expert in listening you must follow a humorous methodology. But when you have learned how to listen, it is humour that will follow you.
I have delved into this sound world to help me make sense of the things around us and to explore the hard to articulate “sense of place”, what the social and political geographer Doreen Massey celebrates as the ephemeral and effervescent nature of place:
…what is special about place is the throwntogetherness, the unavoidable challenge of negotiating a here-and-now (itself drawing on a history and a geography of thens and theres); and a negotiation which must take place within and between human and nonhuman. (Massey 2005, 140)
To capture my surroundings I have been mapping its local presence and releasing monthly albums at 51degreesnorth.bandcamp.com to chart the ways that “sound and modes of site-specificity overlap and form an extended dialogue” (LaBelle 2006, xv). But as LaBelle highlights in the work of Yasunao Tone and Bill Fontana, I find problematic this over reliance on a strict pure form of acoustic ecology and bring into my practice the rich history of sound use from Fluxus and musique concrète, through popular music, to contemporary artists such as Lee Patterson, Francisco Lopez and Toshiya Tsunoda. 4[4. These three artists are featured on the excellent Audible Geography album released by the Room40 label.]
By pushing the envelope of musicality to an extreme, found objects, audience, and social space coalesce in an unstable amalgam of input and output, technologies and their inherent ability to arrest and accentuate sonic detail, and the performing body as situated within found environment come to initiate a vocabulary by which experimental music slips into sound art. (LaBelle 2006, xiii)
One very important practice I have taken from acoustic ecology is the concept of active listening, of focusing on what your ears are hearing, listening equally to all the sounds around us. This quickly came to the fore as I settled into the chair and was plugged into the audio interface, I heard my body as a sound-generating device in a new light and instantly saw it as an experimental performance. One that emphasises temporary, ephemeral and mutable aspects of art and of life. The experience immediately tied into my recent questioning about the perceptual process, the ways in which particular vibrational phenomena contour the subjective experience of time and space. Of “activating space through implementing and inserting auditory features” (LaBelle 2006, 167).
It seems that “[i]n routine needle-electrode examination of voluntary muscle contraction, the electrodiagnostic consultant assesses the signature electrical signal generated by the motor units 5[5. “The motor unit (MU) is a part of the neuromuscular system that contains an anterior horn cell, its axon, and all of the muscle fibers (MFs) that it innervates, including the axon’s specialized point of connection to the MFs, the neuromuscular junction” (Barkhaus 2011). “The motor unit in the muscle constitutes the smallest unit in the muscle that can be controlled by will power. A motor unit consists of a bundle of muscle fibres controlled by a single motor neuron. The number of muscle fibres in a motor unit depends on the size of the muscle and can vary from just a few in the smallest muscles, for example around the eye, to several thousand in the large muscle groups in the legs” (Ambu 2010).], termed the motor unit action potential” (Barkhaus 2011). My conversation with the consultant revealed that electrodiagnostic consultants have become accustomed to the expedient of subjective assessment of the EMG signal in routine analysis. While the consultant was training his eye on the monitor to truly measure the size, complexity, and stability of the waveforms, he would be constantly shifting their attention between me, the patient, and the position of the needle in my muscle, as he fine-tuned its placement, listening attentively to the sounds coming out the speakers, and between the waveform on the monitor. The audio feedback is critically important for the electrodiagnostic consultant during this test.
As I lay there listening to the sounds being generated from my muscles, sounds I’d heard from space popped into my head. For example, the crackle and pop of lightning deep in Saturn’s atmosphere 6[6. See, for example, “The Sounds of Lightning at Saturn” on the The University of Iowa Department of Physics and Astronomy website.]. These sounds are similar to the cracks and pops one hears on an AM radio during a thunderstorm. They connected my body with the solar system and made me think of the inter-connectedness of ourselves to the world around us. But they also made me question the sounds and the audio amplification; how true are these sounds? Is it the equipment that is making these sounds, or is it an interpretation of data by our electronic devices?
But in a way I was not overly concerned with the sonic construction, more with its possibilities. I was fascinated to hear that because the test involves registering electrical activity, I could control the sounds that you hear by flexing my eye muscle, by crunching my eyelids closed, or relaxing them. It was like I was playing a musical instrument and I was that instrument.
Thus, in a way, this recording is an interaction between the electrodiagnostic consultant interacting with the recording equipment, from the level of entry at the recording electrode and myself controlling my eye muscles. It was collaboration between scientist and artist, one I would love to explore further.
Unfortunately I have had to put this experimental investigation onto hold, as the consultant would not allow me to take home these particular needles. In this age of health and safety, and threats of being sued, he had to safely destroy the needle he had placed into my body. That I might accidental cause harm with the needles and then I, or my family, would sue the NHS Trust for giving me the needles! He said I could write to the NHS trust and ask if I might be able to buy one, however he suggested, it would probably be easier for me to go online and buy them direct from a supplier.
Until I get hold of these needles, what I can get on with is investigating the last test I underwent as the consultant did allow me to record the 45-minute test. But I am keen on developing this as a new aspect of my artistic practice, as a Biotechnological Performance Practice.
I am left with a series of sonic questions and looking at future experimental investigations. Where might I go with this process? How might the sounds be produced differently? How do different muscles sound? What parameters might I be able to control on my own? And how might they sound different left in my hands and not controlled by the consultant?
Till another day…
Ambu writers. “EMG — Electromyography.” Ambu.com, 2010. http://www.ambu.com/emg_us/emg.aspx [last accessed 22 April 2012]
Barkhaus, Paul E. “EMG Evaluation of the Motor Unit — Electrophysiologic Biopsy.” Medscape. WebMD LLC, updated 30 November 2011. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1846028-overview [last accessed 22 April 2012]
LaBelle, Brandon. Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. Continuum, 2006.
Nyman, Michael. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Music in the Twentieth Century, Vol. 9). 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester VT: Destiny Books, 1994.
Toop, David. “To Move Within Sound.” Autumn Leaves: Sound and the Environment in Artistic Practice. Edited by Angus Carlyle. Paris: Double Entendre/CRiSAP, 2007.
Wikipedia contributors. “Electromyography.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromyography
World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE). http://wfae.proscenia.net